One of the truly marvellous things about the Easter period are the performance of the music of J. S. Bach. You’ll mostly find his Passions done this time of year, the crowing achievement of Baroque sacred music, though BBC NOW have picked another relevant work: his Easter Oratorio.
The Russian Easter-Festival Overture by Rimsky-Korsakov opened proceedings with an exotic jolt. We get a lesson in orchestration from the Russian master, crammed with Orthodox inspired motifs, sensual and pungent in their various guises. The piece was slightly too long, but it sparkled with fine musical moments. Tributes to Bach began with Percy Grainger’s Blithe Bells. Essentially ‘Sheep may safely graze’ by Bach, this orchestral version of the piece is an aptly dubbed “ramble” incorporating four hand piano, celesta, two vibraphones and a xylophone. It’s an odd assortment that strangely works well with the sweet melody and pristine mood of the piece. A welcome addition.
Baritone William Dazeley, joined the BBC NOW forces along with their Chorus for Vaughn William’s Five Mystical Songs. Using the poems of Welsh-born priest George Herbert, these songs have few moments of real tenderness nor natural splendour, the hallmarks we know well from the English composer. There are fleeting moments of charm thanks to the efforts of Dazeley, who sings with an expected force. Jonathan Heyward conducted the first three works here, his grip on the scores being of weighty value. We were after all here for Bach and we would be appeased in the final piece on the programme.
Whist Bach’s Passions make for headlines concerts, audience goers may forget the smaller piece of the Easter Oratorio. This takes on the story of the resurrection, in the preceding events at the cave and the devotion to Jesus’ return. Steven Devine conducted here with grace and also was the harpsichord soloist in a daring duo role that works a treat in today’s versions of Bach’s work. Soprano Anna Dennis has an effortless mastery of her aria, touching in parts. Recovering from a brief black pearl moment, Nick Pritchard gave the solo: ‘Sanfte sollmein Todeskummer’ (My final agony should be gentle) with a stirring commitment and powerful musicality. In short, I did not want this to end and became teary when it left us.
Countertenor William Towers was sharp in his performance, his own aria a pearl of enjoyment. Dazeley returned as the baritone role with energy, though being the only soloist to not feature an aria of his own. The mellifluous nature of the music is one of Bach’s greatest achievements, along with the dense yet brilliant use of harmony, thanks to the inclusion of woodwind into the orchestra. One marvels often with Bach the sheer joy of the music and also a sense of time halting in order for the mood to be clear and the mind to be satisfied. This is a rare feeling indeed.
A very patient chorus got to finish in a blaze of glory with the conclusion of the oratorio. They sung with great vigour, as always and helped finish off the concert with a flourish.